Covid live news: Italy records lowest deaths since mid-October; UK could make vaccines mandatory for NHS staff | World news

Only 1% of the 1.3 billion vaccines injected around the world have been administered in Africa – and that comparative percentage has been declining in recent weeks. It is a stark figure that underlines just how serious a problem global vaccine inequity has become. But the answer for the developing world is not as simple as delivering more vaccines.

From Africa to Latin America, Asia and the Caribbean, the same issues have been replicated. On top of finding enough doses, there have been logistical difficulties with delivery, problems over healthcare infrastructure and, in some countries, public hesitancy towards vaccines.

Africa’s lack of vaccines – and the erratic supply of those that are eventually delivered – remains the No 1 challenge, however. Only 28 million doses have been delivered on the continent so far – that’s less than 2% of the continent’s population – at a time when some wealthier countries have vaccinated well in excess of half their populations.

One issue is that 40 African countries, as the World Health Organization recently pointed out, had been relying on the Covax facility, the scheme designed to deliver cheap doses to promote vaccine equality. Supplies were supposed to come from the Serum Institute of India but have now been diverted for domestic use in India.

The WHO announced on Thursday that Africa needed at least 20 million AstraZeneca doses in the next six weeks to give second shots to all those who had received a first dose. In addition, another 200 million doses of approved vaccines are needed to enable the continent to vaccinate 10% of its population by September.

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said last week:

Africa needs vaccines now. Any pause in our vaccination campaigns will lead to lost lives and lost hope.

It’s too soon to tell if Africa is on the cusp of a third wave. However, we know that cases are rising, and the clock is ticking so we urgently appeal to countries that have vaccinated their high-risk groups to speed up the dose-sharing to fully protect the most vulnerable people.

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Allies of Donald Trump took the unusual step of speaking out on Sunday in support of Joe Biden, regarding efforts to pinpoint the source of Covid-19 and find out if China knows more about the origins of the pandemic than it is letting on.

Biden said on Thursday he was expanding an investigation into the outbreak, following a departure from previous thinking by at least one US intelligence agency now leaning towards the theory that the virus escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan.

Michael McCaul, a Republican congressman from Texas, and Matthew Pottinger, Trump’s former deputy national security adviser who persuaded him to start using the controversial term “Wuhan virus”, both welcomed the development.

Pottinger told NBC’s Meet the Press:

It’s absolutely essential to find out what the origin of this thing is, it’s essential for us to head off the next pandemic, it’s essential for us to better understand the variants of the current pandemic that are emerging.

Both of these hypotheses that President Biden spoke of are valid, it could have emerged from a laboratory, it could have emerged from nature. Neither is supported by concrete evidence but there’s a growing amount of circumstantial evidence supporting the idea that this may have leaked from a laboratory.

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A health expert affiliated with the World Health Organization has called on the US to share any intelligence it has about the origins of the coronavirus outbreak with the WHO and the scientific community.

Last week the Wall Street Journal cited US intelligence agencies who said they were told that three unnamed members of staff at a lab in the Chinese city of Wuhan were sick enough to go hospital in November 2019 with Covid-like symptoms.

US intelligence chiefs later stressed they did not know how the virus was transmitted initially, but that they had two theories: either it emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals, or it was a laboratory accident.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend, Dr Dale Fisher said the theory that the virus had leaked from a laboratory was “not off the table”, but remained “unverified”. Fisher, the chair of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, which is coordinated by the WHO, urged the US to share any intelligence it had. “The Wall Street Journal is not really the way to share science,” he said.

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Ministers have been urged not to “threaten” NHS staff by forcing them to get vaccinated against coronavirus under plans being considered by the government.

The shadow Commons leader, Thangam Debbonaire, said it was not a “good idea” after the vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, admitted the proposal was being investigated alongside the existing consultation on making jabs mandatory for social care workers.

There is nervousness in Whitehall about doing anything to destabilise the vaccine rollout by requiring that people get the jab instead of keeping it voluntary – something that several behavioural scientists have warned could dampen take-up among already vaccine-hesitant groups.

But after concerns that a sizeable number of health and social care staff, who were among the first to be offered the vaccine, are reluctant to get jabbed, the government has been consulting on making vaccines mandatory for care workers, and is now expanding that to include all those working in the NHS.

People who remain chronically ill after Covid infections in England have had to wait months for appointments and treatment at specialist clinics set up to handle the surge in patients with long Covid.

MPs called on Matt Hancock to explain the lengthy waiting times and what they described as a “shameful postcode lottery” which left some patients facing delays of more than four months before being assessed at a specialist centre while others were seen within days.

NHS England announced in December that people with long Covid, or post-Covid syndrome, could seek help at more than 60 specialist clinics. But despite government assertions in January that the network of 69 centres was already operating, the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus found that some clinics were still not up and running three months later.

The theory that the coronavirus outbreak began with a leak from a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan has not been ruled out, according to a health expert affiliated with the WHO.

Dr Dale Fisher, chair of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, which is coordinated by the WHO, said the WHO’s investigation into the origins of the virus had only just begun.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s World This Weekend he said: “The lab leak theory is not off the table, there’s more research to be done.”

An investigation visit by WHO experts earlier this year, which was highly controlled by the Chinese authorities, concluded it “extremely unlikely” that the pandemic began with a laboratory incident.

Fisher said this theory remained “unverified” despite a report, based on US intelligence, which claimed three members of staff at the lab had become sick with Covid-like in early December 2019.

He urged the US to share this intelligence. Fisher said: “We believe that all the laboratory workers have had serology [tests] done and all those antibody tests were negative and that was part of the reason why the risk was downplayed.”

Fisher added: “WHO could do itself a favour, by describing the plans for further investigation because people really haven’t heard anything since the February mission was done and therefore people think they’ve stopped looking for the origins, which is far from the truth, it’s only really just begun.”

He also suggested China’s secrecy about the origins of the virus could be driven by fears of compensation claims. Fisher said: “Any country that found any Covid-19 in its borders before the outbreak started would suddenly clam up. This is why I would argue that diplomacy is the way forward with this, creating a no blame culture. The only way you really can get to the bottom of this is just to say ‘look there’s no penalties, we just need to sort this out’.”


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